Lessons from Japan

In the general election held in Japan on August 30 for the 480 seats for the House of Representatives or the lower house of the Diet of Japan, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) scored a historic landslide victory against the incumbent ruling coalition consisting of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito Party.

Under the constitution of Japan, this election result has assured DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama the position of prime minister. On the night of August 30, out-going PM Taro Aso conceded that LDP has lost the government and announced his defeat as LDP president.

Malaysians probably shrug off this piece of news as just another election in an Asian neighbouring country, but long time observers of Asian politics like me must be rubbing their eyes in disbelief. For decades now, I thought LDP was going to rule Japan for eternity, just as I thought – until recently – that the Umno-led Barisan Nasional was going to rule Malaysia forever.

After all, LDP was the main political force in Japan that has arisen from the ashes of the country’s humiliating defeat that ended the Second World War.

The three way partnership between the LDP, big business, and bureaucrats (Japan Incorporated) had turned the country into the economic powerhouse that is now the second largest economy in the world. Japanese manufactured goods flood households throughout the world, including Malaysia. The achievement of Japan has often been touted as a miracle.

That strategy floundered when in the late 1980s, Japan’s “bubble economy” burst, and growth has stagnated since.

Centre right conservative party

The LDP was still able to score a huge win in the 2005 general election on the charismatic leadership of Junichiro Koizumi. But his promise of reform crumbled as more scandals surfaced, and the electorate increasingly perceived the LDP as too stuck in the status quo to tackle the country’s basic structural problems of a fast ageing populations.

The LDP has always been centre right conservative party that has been the best ally for the USA in the capitalist world. In sharp contrast, the DPJ contested the recent general election on a platform of focusing spending on the consumers, cut wasteful budget outlay, and reduce power for the bureaucrats, as well as taking a more independent stand in relation to the US.

The general election took place at a time when Japan was groaning under the effect of a global economic melt-down. The number of jobless people and the homeless living on the streets has reached a record high.

The old system of life-long job security has been considerably sabotaged by the new practice of hiring temporary workers who are underpaid. The Japanese society must be seething with discontent beneath their façade of pliant harmony.

This is the worst unthinkable defeat for the LDP, which has held power in Japan for over half a century except for a brief 11 month period. But like all old political parties that have been in power for too long, the LDP has fallen victim to its complacency, arrogance, and corruption.

The dislodgement of LDP signals the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.

The DPJ had made a great deal of promises to put cash into the hands of the consumers, and build the semblance of a safety net for the old and the unfortunate. Where the money is coming from is not clear, and the expectation among the Japanese is so high that there would be the inevitable disappointment.

But even if the DPJ is defeated in the next general election, the basis for a two-party or two-coalition system would have been laid in place in Japan. It is doubtful that the old system of one-party rule in the past can ever be maintained in 21st century Japan.

A revolution

The DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama has proclaimed this election as a “revolution”. Indeed it is, for it has peacefully overthrown an old entrenched political system, on its way towards a more open and more competitive one. Great unnerving uncertainty during this period of transition is only to be expected.

There are many lessons to be learned from Japan by nations of the world.

Firstly, regime change can still be brought about peacefully at the ballot box without resorting to violent means, as long as the democratic institutions are in place.

No matter what the ideological jingoism may be, the basic core concern for the voters at large in a mature democracy is still economics. People will vote according to the health of their pocket book, eventually. Any political party aspiring to power to rule any country must have a set of sound economic policies to deliver justice to all the citizens.

Finally, no political party can hold power forever, as long as the democratic framework is enshrined in the nation’s constitution.

Any political party is but a boat travelling on the water, which is the electorate. The water can carry the boat to its destination, but the water can also capsize and sink the boat. At least, that is what one old Chinese proverb says.

At home in Malaysia, we have a similar situation. We have a soft-authoritarian BN regime that has been in power for over half a century. It has also built up its political strength by the three way partnership of BN, big Business, and bureaucrats. In the 1980s, the former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad had even promoted the slogans of Malaysia Incorporated and Look East in an attempt to emulate Japan.

The warning signs are there, in the political tsunami of the 2008 general election, in widespread public outcry over the PKFZ scandal and Teoh Beng Hock’s death.

Above all, it is the economic hardship suffered by Malaysians of all races and all ages. Despite grand programmes announced by the government, ordinary wage earners continue to slog on in their daily struggle for survival amidst spiralling prices and stagnant income. Racial and religious rhetoric can hardly help them in their time of need.

Beware the volcano of public discontent. It may decide to erupt at the polling booths in a future general election too, as in Japan.

Sim Kwang Yang


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